- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

Washington Social Club

Catching Looks

Badman Recording Co.

Regulars at the Velvet Lounge and the Black Cat probably are well familiar with the songs here, the proper debut from Washington Social Club, a local garage-pop band on the cusp of national breakthrough.

Last month, it caught the attention of MTV’s “Advance Warning,” an episodic spotlight on buzzworthy bands.

Already vets of the country’s interstate highway system, the band also has played at the ultra-hip South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and the College Music Journal festival in New York.

San Francisco’s Badman label took notice.

A few years from now, in the sunny uplands of rock stardom, WSC may consider the Philadelphia recording session that yielded “Looks” a fun yet slightly cringe-worthy snapshot from the days of roughing it in hole-in-the-wall clubs and living on a shoestring budget. The Britpop hooks, the pluck, the alcoholic vim and vigor — they’re all here and ready to party ‘til dawn.

But there’s something missing: that technical-aural magic that can get corrupted or muddied on the trip from instrument to tape.

The band is better than “Catching Looks” sounds. Producer-engineer Brian McTear (Burning Brides and the Capitol Years) failed to capture WSC’s live energy.

Martin Royle, the singer-guitarist who writes the band’s songs, has a good rock voice and arty, middle-finger attitude. “Looks” is short, and short on dull moments, from the anti-bourgeois nose-thumber “On the Inside” to the new wave hop of “Modern Trance” and, finally, the talk with God in “New Jersey Malls.”

Mr. Royle sounds bored and frustrated like a good punk should. Being broke is a staple theme, as on “Dancing Song,” on which he declares, “Let’s get stupid, ‘cause stupid’s free.”

But he needs a cash infusion for things like more guitars and amps. Every song bears the same middling tone that’s not quite clean and not quite crunchy. Distorted, Strokes-y lines pop up on tracks such as “Dead Kid Town,” but Mr. Royle and lead guitarist Evan Featherstone would — let’s be optimistic and say will — be in much better shape with a few grand to unload at the Guitar Center.

Elsewhere, like on “River and the Road,” harmony vocals from bassist and French horn (the notes cheekily call it the Freedom horn) player Olivia Mancini are more off than on, and drummer Randy Scope is a bit leadfooted doing stop-time reggae on “Charlie the Russian.”

But “Charlie the Russian” is so good — Mr. Royle’s melody head-embeds for hours — it hardly matters.

Buy WSC’s “Catching Looks” so you can say you knew them when.

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